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Changing the world, one car at a time

Britain has the chance to lead the world into an energy revolution – but it can only do so with the right public policy environment.

As party members, businesses, journalists and politicians descended on Brighton for Labour party conference, and prepare to do so for the Conservative party conference in Manchester, they will likely have been breathing in air than breaches EU safety limits. It does not need to be this way.

Britain has a proud history of leading the world in new technologies, with some of the world’s brightest and best working on solutions to our air quality crisis. As a British entrepreneur in the low-carbon economy, I firmly believe that, given the right policy landscape, the UK can be a global leader in developing new technologies and products to tackle climate change and to help clean up our air.

Riversimple is pioneering the design and manufacture of lightweight, highly efficient hydrogen fuel cell cars.  I founded the company Riversimple with a simple mission: to pursue, systematically, the elimination of the environmental impact of personal transport. Our cars are powered by hydrogen fuel cells that only emit water. We are based 75 miles from Swansea, the birthplace of the hydrogen fuel cell, created by William Grove in 1842 and are continuing in the tradition of creative ingenuity that he exemplified.

The burning of natural gas, coal, petrol and diesel shaped the 19th and 20th centuries, powering heating, industry and transport. But as we wake up to the effect that climate change is having on our world today, there is a new impetus to change the way we power our economy. Britain has the potential to lead this change, but to do so it needs public policy to support it in the right way.

It’s not just climate change, but also the impact that pollution is having directly on our health. In February the EU gave the UK a “final warning” on air pollution, with 16 air quality zones breaching their limits. The breaches were for NO2 pollution, which has serious health risks that mostly stem from road transport. Germany, France and Italy are all in breach of their air quality limits too – with Germany the worst offender, breaching limits in 28 different air quality zones. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has taken a leading role in this fight to improve our environment by investing in new technology, through his transport strategy, environment strategy and by bringing forward the introduction of an Ultra-Low Emission Zone.

The last seven years have seen radical change in the automotive industry. From a near-standing start in 2010, by 2015 there were over 1 million electric vehicles include battery-electric, plug-in hybrid electric, and fuel cell electric passenger light-duty vehicles on the roads globally. By 2016 this had doubled to over 2 million, with sales rising 60% in a year.

There are two kinds of fully electric vehicles, and while battery electric vehicles have stolen many of the headlines, the revolution now in progress is much bigger. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are also on the roads today – you can see them on the streets of London as bus operators use them to overcome range and charge time limitations associated with battery electric vehicles. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles present none of the challenges associated with battery electric alternatives - they are refilled with hydrogen at a pump in c.3 minutes and their range is very similar to everyday combustion engine cars.. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles only emit water, and the lighter they are the less particles they produce from tyres and brakes, so they can contribute significantly to minimising the air pollution from road transport.

The technology we need to develop a low-carbon economy exists today; we just need to invest in it and scale it up. The Government should aim to create a level playing field between different technology solutions, and whilst battery vehicles have already received considerable subsidies and government support, the same support has so far not been granted to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, despite their advantages. 

The UK has a unique opportunity to be at the heart of the low-carbon automotive industry, with centres of hydrogen and battery expertise across the country. The UK is sending out a message that it believes in these new technologies and wants to support their growth, but in reality there is more that needs to be done. The Government has thrown its weight behind battery electric cars, and that risks holding back investment in hydrogen technology. If the UK wants to optimise its opportunity for decarbonisation, it must adopt a technology-neutral approach.

People will only buy electric cars – both hydrogen fuel cell and battery electric – if they are confident that there is adequate refuelling and charging infrastructure. Scaling the refuelling infrastructure for hydrogen cars is actually much easier and cheaper than it is to scale battery charging infrastructure – each hydrogen pump can support hundreds of vehicles whereas a charging point can only support a handful – but Investors will only build this infrastructure if they believe in the future of the technology. Both the Government and the opposition have crucial roles in building this confidence, by supporting all technologies equally in order to secure the best deal for the consumer and to provide incentives for investors.

The UK’s future trading relationships are important. Climate change is an international problem and finding the solutions to carbon emissions from transport will be an international effort. The technologies that my business is working on in Wales, indeed innovations from the whole of the UK, could be exported round the world.

In a post-Brexit world, if the UK doesn’t invest in creating new solutions for de-carbonising our transport sector then we risk falling behind other countries that are already racing ahead. I believe that the UK could therefore benefit most by encouraging the commercial success of these two complementary technologies: battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles.

Looking at the statistics and the determination from across political parties, civil society and business, I believe a revolution has already begun. It might force us to change our ways, but the future will not wait, and neither should we.

As the political party conferences season marches on, let’s make sure that the low carbon economy is firmly on their radars. We have an opportunity to create a world-leading green economy, and our Parliamentarians will be pivotal in making that happen. It will give us economic growth and a better world. Together it is a future we can achieve.

 

Founder and Chief Engineer of Riversimple, Hugo Spowers began his career designing racing cars before environmental concerns led him away from motorsport.  After a feasibility study on hydrogen vehicles during his MBA at Cranfield, he concluded that a step change in automotive technology is both essential and possible.  Riversimple have now developed their first car designed for type approval, the Rasa, and are trialling 20 vehicles in Monmouthshire in 2018.

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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”